The Radiotype
Long before the advent of email, IBM developed a wireless system for sending text around the world
A typewriter-like radiotype station

In 1931 — three decades before the first electronic mail messages were sent among mainframe computer users, and six decades before internet-based email became widely available — a team of scientists at the Radio Industries Corporation built a prototype for sending typewritten messages via radio waves. Company president Walter Lemmon, engineer Clyde Fitch, and A. M. Nicolson connected two electric typewriters via shortwave radio, so that keystrokes entered on the sending machine were replicated on the receiving machine. They called their invention the Radiotype.

It was of particular interest to Thomas J. Watson Sr., a committed internationalist who believed that globalized communication and world trade would lay the groundwork for a more peaceful and stable system in the 20th century. After representatives of Radio Industries demonstrated the Radiotype to Watson in 1933, he saw so much potential in it that he bought all of the patents covering the device.

Watson believed that the Radiotype was the beginning of a new era in long-distance business. “We’ve got to get excited about that one,” he said. “I dare not start on what I see as possibilities for the future. My horizon for that machine goes so far out, I don’t dare to stop to think about it.”

To the ends of the earth

Lemmon joined IBM as the manager of the company’s new Radiotype division in 1933, bringing Fitch and Nicolson with him. The company gifted two Radiotypes — now using Electromatic typewriters — to the explorer Admiral Richard Byrd. Byrd brought one along on his second expedition to the “Little America” base in Antarctica.

While previous tests of the Radiotype had occurred over a distance of a few hundred miles, in 1935 Byrd sent a short, typewritten message — “WATSON” — from Antarctica to Ridgewood, New Jersey, a distance of over 11,000 miles. The Radiotype’s range thrilled Watson, who saw it as a potential means of facilitating global communication.

He praised Byrd’s expedition as a glimpse of a new, internationally connected world. “To me, a man who is doing the things Admiral Byrd is doing presents a rare example for an organization such as we have in the IBM,” Watson said, “because our own future depends on vision and courage.”

The Radiotype at war

Although Watson’s vision of international cooperation remained undimmed, the immediate future for the Radiotype — and for the larger world — centered on conflict. In 1941, shortly before the United States entered World War II, IBM lent Radiotypes to the US Army Signal Corps for field tests of communication between Washington, DC, and Dayton, Ohio. The tests were overseen by Albert Holt, an IBM field engineer in the Radiotype division. Pleased with the results, the Signal Corps ordered Radiotypes for stations in San Francisco, Honolulu, Panama and Puerto Rico, all connected to a central station at the Pentagon.

Over the course of the war, this network expanded to include stations in New York, Atlanta, Dayton, Omaha and Seattle. At peak traffic, the system handled more than 50 million words a day, the equivalent of 1,315 novels. It could relay a single short message around the world in four minutes — a fast and secure channel that gave the United States a communication advantage throughout the war.

At peak traffic, the system handled more than 50 million words a day, the equivalent of 1,315 novels
A new generation of wireless technology

After the war ended, IBM sold its Radiotype intellectual property to the Globe Wireless Company of San Francisco, but it retained engineer Clyde Fitch, who continued to develop new wireless technologies for IBM throughout the 1940s and 1950s. One of his most famous inventions was the Wireless Translator, a system of shortwave radio headsets for providing simultaneous translation at international gatherings and other multilingual events.

The translator was first used at the World Conference of the Teaching Profession at IBM Homestead in 1946, then deployed on a massive scale at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union in Atlantic City, where delegates used over 3,000 headsets operating on three different systems to allocate the international distribution of radio frequencies. The Wireless Translator became the basis for similar systems that are still used by international bodies like the United Nations today.

Watson’s belief that the Radiotype would play a key role in international relations proved prophetic. In both war and peace, the system — and the wireless technologies it inspired — made high-speed communication across borders and languages a reality. The modern world of emails, texts and other forms of instantaneous messages was still a long time coming, but progress had been set in motion — by two typewriters and a shortwave radio.

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